Volunteers search for secrets and history in old graveyard

Volunteers search for secrets and history in old graveyard


This past Saturday morning, members of the General Francis Nash chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution were hard at work in a patch of wooded area on the south side of Church Street East in Brentwood.

Travelers on the road may have seen the women raking leaves, cutting back brush, or carrying fallen branches among what appeared to be an uneven assortment of small stone monuments. Slightly later in the morning, travelers may have seen some of the women methodically crisscrossing the area, concentrated looks on their faces, holding two long wires straight out in front of them.

They were there as part of a service project. For the past couple of years, this D.A.R. chapter has met twice annually to clean up the African American cemetery that sits in the historic Hardscuffle community just inside the Brentwood city limits.

On Saturday, though, they had an additional objective in mind: to find out how many people were actually buried in the old graveyard.

It only takes rakes and shears to rid the place of unwanted vegetation, but their new goal required a more unusual tool.  That’s where the dowsing rods came in.

Chapter member Andrea Lawrence lives just down the street from the cemetery. She first happened upon it thanks to the work of an industrious boy scout.

“A boy scout cleaned it up years ago, so I knew it was in here, but it had grown up [with] old, wild privet hedge and stuff taller than I am” in recent years, she said.

Lawrence told her fellow D.A.R. members about the cemetery, and they decided to work together to fix it up.

“We call it our adopted cemetery,” Stephanie Sturdivant, regent of the General Francis Nash DAR chapter, said. “We started it a couple of years ago. The weeds and brush were just really overgrown, and you could barely see the graves and the headstones.”

As the group made progress, though, the tall, dense vegetation gave way to reveal the cemetery beneath, and its modest number of gravestones. The headstones themselves are diverse in style. Some appear to be professionally carved and others were done in a less uniform, more vernacular style.

Time and the elements had not been kind to any of them, however, and the D.A.R. members decided to expand the scope of their project by bringing in an outsider for help.

“When we cut the weeds back we noticed the headstones were in such rough shape,” Sturdivant said. “We got a guy to come who does historical restorations for headstones. He restored the existing headstones for us and kind of reset some of them that had been knocked over.”

Foreground: D.A.R. members Ellen Gregory and Andrea Lawrence work on cleaning up the cemetery located just off Church Street East.

Alongside the efforts to improve the cemetery’s appearance, some of the D.A.R. members decided to delve into the cemetery’s history in order to see if they could learn more about the people interred there.

Much of that work was undertaken by Susan Hopfensperger, the chapter’s volunteer genealogist.

“We originally started just cleaning the cemetery and my curiosity…got the best of me, and I started looking for death certificates to see if we could find out who was buried there,” she said. “That search expanded to obituaries and census records.”

Some of the facts about the cemetery were fairly easy to find. The first recorded burial there was in 1899. The most recent burial to occur there with a still-extant headstone was in 1961, although Hopfensperger said that there is a funeral home marker on the site that indicates the cemetery may have been used as late as 1975.

Most of the people buried in the cemetery appear to be descendants of Robert and Lucy Owen, who Hopfensperger believes were former slaves.

Other facts, though, are harder to determine with certainty. By sifting through newspaper obituaries and funeral notices, Hopfensperger puts the number of people buried in the cemetery at 33, although she said she would not be surprised if the true figure were higher. Babies or small children that were buried there, for instance, may not have gotten funeral notices, and it is difficult to determine what name, if any, the graveyard actually went by when it was in use. Owen Cemetery appeared on one death certificate, but other documents simply referred to “family cemetery” or gave Brentwood as the place of burial.

Of those 33 people that she knows about, less than a third have gravestones.

Out of all the people buried there, one especially stood out to Hopfensperger: Robert Moore.  During the early stages of her work, Hopfensperger discovered that Moore was a World War II veteran.

He had enlisted at Camp Forrest in Tullahoma, Tennessee in 1942, and had died in 1946, shortly after the war’s end. Moore’s unheralded presence in this small, neglected graveyard on Church Street struck a nerve with Hopfensperger.

“I would like that veteran to have a flag on his grave,” she said. “That really was my impetus to start my research.”

Moore, though, is the exception in the old cemetery. His story has been discovered. The same can not be said for the unknown number of others surrounding him.

Rather than simply accept this uncertainty, the women of the General Francis Nash chapter endeavored to do something about it.

The idea had presented itself in a chapter meeting last month when Jill Jones-Lazuka, the chaplain of the Tennessee Society Daughters of the American Revolution, gave a program about how dowsing could be used to find unmarked graves.

For those not familiar with it, dowsing is a kind of folk practice that has been around for centuries whereby a person uses metal rods to locate objects underneath the earth. When a dowser passes over underground water, gold, supposed spirits, or, in this case, bodies, the rods are said to cross, thereby alerting the dowser that they have found what they were looking for.

“There is some claim that…it has something to do with the magnetic patterns that things create in the earth,” Ben Nance, a historical archaeologist with the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation, said.

Despite those claims, however, Nance said that professional archaeologists “don’t consider it to be scientifically accurate.” He mentioned tests where dowsers would survey a piece of land and then that same piece of land would be examined using something like ground-penetrating radar.

“The studies show that dowsing is not much better than a coin toss. 50/50,” he said.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged the practice’s popularity in some parts of the wider culture.

“There are people who swear by it,” Nance said.

On Saturday, the D.A.R. members thought they would give it a shot. The plan was to walk up and down and back and forth across the length and width of the cemetery, waiting for those wires to cross. Then, they could mark the point of that crossing as a potential grave site.

To make things even more interesting, the women would pay close attention to which wire moved first, as that was said to indicate whether the person buried there was male or female.

“When you’re holding the dowsing rods and you walk over [a grave], if the right rod takes the lead and crosses over first it’s a male, if the left rod takes the lead and crosses over first it’s a female,” Sturdivant said.

They started off by practicing on some marked graves. If the wires crossed when the women walked over a spot where they knew someone was buried, then that was a good sign the rods were working.

Stephanie Sturdivant and Ellen Gregory, of the General Francis Nash Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, look for unmarked graves using dowsing rods.

From the very start, it appeared that was the case.

“The right one went in first on this one. Is it a male?” Sturdivant asked as she moved into a patch of land bookended by a headstone and a footstone. She went around to check and saw the name Rev W.M. Moore. “It is,” she said.

“This is amazing. I can’t believe it. That’s as crazy as it can be,” Lawrence said.

The dowsing rods that the women used differed in their composition. One set was made of copper tubing. Another, carried by Brentwood Historic Commission (and non-DAR) member Kathie Greaves, consisted of two straightened coat hangers hooked into round pieces of foam rubber.

All seemed to work just fine.

“That is so cool. I’m gonna have to save my husband’s coat hangers from the cleaners,” chapter member Ellen Gregory said.

Stephanie Sturdivant with a crossed pair of dowsing rods.

In an effort to ensure accuracy, the women even set up a system where one member would follow in the footsteps of another. That way they could double-check that both women’s wires crossed at the same spots. They decided to put a blue flag down where they thought a man was buried and a pink flag down where the dowsing rods indicated a woman was buried.

The numbers exceeded their expectations.

“We did 20 males and 14 females if our dowsing is correct,” Sturdivant said. “The only reason we stopped is because we ran out of blue flags for the males.”

Hopfensperger was unable to make it out to the cemetery for the dowsing. While not exactly a skeptic, she nonetheless thinks dowsing is probably not for her.

“Some people I think have more of a connection with the extra-worldly, I guess, some people have some clairvoyant tendencies. I am not one. Dowsing would not work for me. I could walk around the room, and the rods would not work for me,” she said.

Her possible inability to dowse is actually in keeping with what she said she was taught at the previous chapter meeting.

“The person who came and spoke with us said that about 10 percent of the population are not able to dowse,” she said. Hopfensperger feels that she must be part of that 10 percent.

Now that they have potentially identified more graves at the cemetery, the D.A.R. members would like to do more to let others know about the people who may be buried in them.

“We’d love to put new markers for the ones that are not there, but that takes money,” Lawrence said. “We have a lot more energy than we do money.”

Sturdivant said that her D.A.R. chapter may try to fundraise to accomplish that goal.

“Even though we might not know who exactly is buried at that spot, we can at least mark the grave so others can know that somebody is there,” she said.

Sturdivant wishes there was some way they could take the results from the dowsing on Saturday, check it against Hopfensperger’s work, and actually be able to figure out who is buried where at the cemetery.

“That’s being optimistic,” she admits. “That would be wonderful if we could do that.”

In the beginning, all the women wanted to do was rescue the cemetery from the overgrowth that concealed it and its inhabitants from the world.

“Our main thing was to get it so people even knew it was up here,” as Lawrence put it.

As time went on, they became more and more interested in trying to uncover as much as they could about the lives of those whose were buried in the cemeteryAnd if the D.A.R. members are never able to say definitively how many people are buried there, or figure out the names of the interred, well, it will not be for lack of trying. They are utilizing every method they have access to, including dowsing, to try to make sure that the people whose headstones they clean or whose nameless graves they walk over are not forgotten.

“We just believe in history of course,” Lawrence said. “Our ancestors along with these people have worked hard for this country so we need to put in a little elbow grease ourselves. A lot of them gave their lives and all their fortune and everything they had, so it’s the least we can do.”

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